A child prodigy who started training at the age of 5, Eugene Novotney studied on a jazz drum set and became a percussionist, composer, conductor and recording artist who is enjoyed around the world. Classically trained in European orchestral traditions, he branched out into the steel band music of the Caribbean when he was in graduate school at the University of Illinois.
Less than a year after he began teaching at Humboldt State University in 1985, Eugene moved boldly to expand the school's musical horizons. He founded the Humboldt Calypso Band, without a penny of outside funding.
How did he do it? He sold his "rust-colored and rust-infested" 1974 Chevy Nova for about $1,100 and got in touch with a former teacher, Clifford Alexis, of Trinidad & Tobago. Alexis has been honored by Trinidad's government as one of his island nation's "50 Living Legends" for his work as a brilliant craftsman of steel drum instruments. Eugene paid him $750 and used the rest of the cash to defray shipping costs.
And that wasn't the first time Eugene sold his car to exalt his soul. Seven years before, when he was starting college, he hocked the first car he ever owned, a 1971 AMC Javelin, for $1,500. It financed a $1,400 marimba, which remains his favorite instrument to play. "Ask any of my students," he says. "Even though I'm known for the steel band by the general public, I think my students see me more as a marimba player."
As for selling off his assets to buy instruments, he dismisses the notion that he did anything unusual. "Go to New Orleans and ask any musician if he ever sold anything to purchase an instrument. I think you'd get more yes's than no's," he says.
Eugene's long-term dream is to establish a Center for World Music at Humboldt State, and he's off to a great start. In 2006, he was the recipient of a prestigious Wang Award, a $20,000 prize named for an accomplished California family and issued through the auspices of California State University. The professor and his wife promptly flew to Bali to explore the musical culture and purchase instruments for a 12-piece Balinese Gamelan (Gamelan is an Indonesian word that signifies an orchestra or ensemble of gongs and metallophones). Eugene's gamelan gleams with lustrous reds and gold leaf fretwork that are nearly as pleasing to the eye as the gongs and metallophones are to the ear.
What was the appeal of Bali? Eugene says divergent world societies forge their cultural images of percussionists in very different ways. "Growing up a drummer in the United States, you're the nuisance of the neighborhood," he jokes. "People ask, 'Why couldn't you play the flute?'"
But meeting musicians in other lands, he discovered perceptions were far different. "In Ghana, if you're a drummer, that's a very prestigious thing to be. In Java and Bali, the primary means of making music is on percussion instruments — percussion dominates. And the first time I encountered the music and the first time I saw the instruments of Indonesia, I said, 'Before I die, I'm going there.'"